Can The U.S. Military Turn The Tide In The Ebola Outbreak? | KUOW News and Information

Can The U.S. Military Turn The Tide In The Ebola Outbreak?

Sep 11, 2014
Originally published on September 12, 2014 6:00 am

As the body count in Africa's deadly Ebola outbreak continues to rise, some say the time has come for the U.S. military to step in.

"The U.S. Military is uniquely poised to help with this disease," says Timothy Flanigan, an infectious disease researcher at Brown University who's volunteering in Liberia, the country hardest hit by Ebola. "We've trained for it, we've got the logistics, we've got the support and we have the matériel."

The Department of Defense runs a sophisticated health service for its own troops. Its staff includes infectious disease experts, doctors and nurses. It can set up massive field hospitals almost anywhere. On top of that, the military can do logistics like no other: It can move fuel, food and supplies en masse.

Earlier this week, on NBC's Meet the Press, President Obama called the Ebola outbreak a "national security priority."

But the Pentagon's commitment seems modest in the wake of Obama's comments. It plans to supply Liberia with a 25-bed field hospital — but no medical staff. The World Health Organization says hundreds of beds are urgently needed.

"A 25-bed hospital, it isn't going to be a big help to the Liberian people, so this was a big disappointment," Flanigan says.

But the military says it can't do everything.

"Our deployable medical capabilities are generally trauma medicine, treating people who suffer wounds in combat and things of that nature," says Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense in charge of Ebola response. "That's not necessarily what they're dealing with there."

And a large number of troops are dispatched, that could make things worse. "Flooding the zone with everything can honestly cause more problems," Lumpkin says. "So it's important that we put the right capabilities in the right place at the right time."

Earlier this summer, Liberian troops were in the wrong place, and it made things a lot worse. Security forces came in to quarantine the citizens of an Ebola stricken slum, without explanation. The situation rapidly escalated, and shots were fired. A teenage boy was wounded and later died.

Foreign troops would not be there to enforce quarantines. But just their presence has the potential to destabilize, says Julie Fischer, a public health expert at George Washington University.

"It's not so good to invade with public health, that does not build trust, that does not build sustainable relationships," she says.

In fact, until recently, many charities working in the region didn't want military involvement. But as the outbreak grows worse, aid groups feel they have to take a chance.

"I think what we've already seen is a sea change in the receptiveness of many international health workers to military engagement," she says.

Doctors Without Borders, which has clinics throughout the region, is now asking for military support. In neighboring Sierra Leone, the British Military is planning to set up and run a 62-bed facility. That work is being done in coordination with the charity Save the Children.

Flanigan, who's working in Liberia, says the help cannot come soon enough: "There are not enough medical personnel to staff the regular clinics and the regular hospitals," he says. "There are not enough medical personnel to staff the Ebola treatment units."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama wants the U.S. military to help combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Local health care systems are collapsing, and American troops could help. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, getting the U.S. military involved isn't as straightforward as it might sound.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: This latest Ebola outbreak is the worst ever. It's already sickened and killed thousands. And speaking on NBC's "Meet The Press" earlier this week, President Obama said the U.S. military could help.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I said - and I said this two months ago to our national security team - is we have to make this a national security priority.

TIMOTHY FLANIGAN: That was so great to hear.

BRUMFIEL: Timothy Flanigan is an American doctor volunteering in Liberia, the nation hardest hit by this outbreak. He says the local health care system has completely broken down. The U.S. Department of Defense has doctors, nurses, field hospitals. It can move supplies, food, fuel - all the things the nation needs as the crisis grows worse.

FLANIGAN: The U.S. military is uniquely poised to help with this disease. We've trained for it. We've got the logistics. We've got the support. And we have the material.

BRUMFIEL: But the day after the president's comments, the Pentagon made only a modest commitment. It will supply Liberia with a 25-bed field hospital and no medical staff. Flanigan is disappointed.

FLANIGAN: A 25-bed hospital, it really is not going to be a significant help to Liberian people.

BRUMFIEL: But the military can't solve everything just by sending in the troops, says Michael Lumpkin, who's heading up the Pentagon's Ebola response.

MICHAEL LUMPKIN: Our deployable medical capabilities are generally trauma medicine, treating people who suffer wounds in combat and things of that nature. That's not necessarily what they're dealing with there.

BRUMFIEL: And Lumpkin says sending in large numbers of troops could make things worse.

LUMPKIN: Flooding the zone with everything is - can honestly cause more problems. So what we have to do is make sure that we're putting the right capability in the right place at the right time.

BRUMFIEL: Earlier this summer, Liberian troops were in the wrong place, and it made things a lot worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

BRUMFIEL: Security forces came in to quarantine the citizens of an Ebola-stricken slum without explanation. Residents got angry. They started throwing rocks. Then, live rounds were fired into the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BRUMFIEL: A teenage boy died. Foreign troops wouldn't be there to enforce quarantines, but just their presence could be destabilizing says Julie Fischer, a public health expert at George Washington University.

JULIE FISCHER: It's not so good to invade with public health. That does not build trust. (Laughter). It does not build sustainable relationships.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, until recently, many charities working in the region didn't want militaries involved. But as the outbreak grows worse, aid groups feel they have to take a chance.

FISCHER: I think that what we've already seen is a sea-change in the receptiveness of many international public health workers to military engagement.

BRUMFIEL: Doctors Without Borders, which has clinics throughout the region, is now asking for military support. In neighboring Sierra Leone, the British military is planning to set up and run a 62-bed facility. That work is being done in coordination with the charity Save The Children. The White House is now considering how the U.S. can best help fight Ebola. Those battling the outbreak hope it will decide to increase military aid and soon. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.